Are word counts killing your writing?

Word counts have both benefits and drawbacks, sometimes occurring simultaneously. After reading a post on Victoria-writes, it really struck me that I haven’t written with a proper word count in the past three or four years.
For some, having a set word cap sets a goal in place. Providing a proper finish line allows writers to focus on reaching the end point.
The biggest drawback for word limits, I think, is the potential for the content to suffer.
On one hand, the writer may need to cut back on key elements of a story just to make it fit a specific word limit in order to please a publisher. In a sense, that forces writers to be creative and cut down on some of the descriptive details that may otherwise bog down a story. Trimming the fat and making your piece flow smoothly is much better than overwhelming the reader with the description of an ornate wooden staircase that isn’t seen later in the manuscript.
Conversely, setting a word count can kill a story that isn’t meant to go on for 100,000 words (or whatever the word count is). Sure, it can be argued that, once again, it spurs creativity as the writer is then forced to whip up some extra details for the manuscript. In some cases, the additional material could provide background to a character, explaining their motives and what drives them in the story.
Over the past three or four years, I’ve written news articles that had a minimum requirement of 500 words. It was generally accepted that you’d go over that level, as there’s almost always something more to say. But, excepting about once every two weeks, there weren’t any set word limits. It was freeing to have the ability to shape a story, or news report, in a way that could best benefit customers.
In the end, I don’t think there’s a straight answer to the question of whether word counts are helpful or detrimental. Like everything else in life, having moderation in writing is a good thing. Also, there’s the old adage that comes to mind: “Leave them wanting more.” If writers overstay their welcome on the page, it’s ultimately doing more harm than good.
So what’s something to take away from this? Have a general word count in mind when starting to write. That helps with pacing, tone and the story itself. Instead of searching for the right timing along the way, having a general idea of when certain actions happen helps all of the plot elements fall right into place.
How do you approach word counts, if at all? Have they been beneficial for you?

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2 comments

  1. I like to use them as targets, sometimes – seeing if I can write something so many words long, or in so little words. I think it depends on the person, really. I like them, but they’re more like goals, as opposed to limits. I can let myself go under or over them, but I get quite chuffed if I’ve reached a word count larger than anything I have managed to write before.

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